Photo of Cleo Epps courtesy Tulsa World Archives.
“Lester, you’ve killed me. You didn’t have to do that,” were the reportedly the last words spoken by Cleo Epps, known in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the “Queen of the Bootleggers.” That was November 12, 1970.
Lester, the man suspected of murdering Epps, was Tom Lester Pugh, who died in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in 2006. Pugh was a member of the notorious Dixie Mafia. Pugh was never convicted of her murder but was serving time on another murder charge. Albert McDonald, Cleo’s ex-boyfriend, was present at her murder and although he did not pull the trigger, he was convicted in the death of Cleo Epps.
Epps began her working life as a school teacher and ended up dead, her body stuffed inside a septic tank. Pugh was said to have murdered her as revenge for testifying against him in the case of the attempted murder of a prominent Tulsa judge.
The body of Cleo Epps was recovered in 1971 from an abandoned homestead in southwest Tulsa. The original cutline from the Tribune article of Feb. 25, 1971, states ” Officers carry Epps’ body from cistern – Tulsa and Creek County investigators and ambulance attendants are shown here taking the body of Mrs. Cleo Epps from the site near 6500 S. Union Ave., where it was found in a septic tank on an abandoned home and tavern property.” LEWIS JARRETT/Tulsa Tribune.
Epps was remembered fondly as a kind woman who was motherly to all and who didn’t even drink herself. She had obtained a college education and her first husband was an attorney.
Epps operated her bootleg business in Tulsa until 1959 when Prohibition was repealed in Oklahoma. She learned the business from her second husband whom she eventually divorced. While she may have been kindly, the bootlegging business was organized crime, and the associates she met during that time would be her undoing.
In 1966, she was indicted for keeping her hand in the moonshine business, a crime which she denied but for which she was found guilty. Her continued association with the likes of Pugh and McDonald had kept her under the watchful eye of law enforcement.
In 1970, she reluctantly agreed to testify against Pugh and McDonald, and appeared in court with a red wig. Her identity was to be protected by Tulsa’s District Attorney, but word got around.
After her body was finally recovered from the septic tank, her funeral was attended by judges, senators, congressmen and members of law enforcement. She left a large estate, owning mortgages on multiple properties. She was 60 years old.
National Bootlegger’s Day is observed annually on January 17.
January 17 is the birthday of Templeton Rye Whiskey and bootlegger Al Capone.